Zardari returns to flood-stricken Pakistan to face mounting criticism

President accused of failing to respond to country's worst-ever natural disaster as rising waters continue to cause devastation

President Asif Ali Zardari finally returned to his ravaged country to face a barrage of criticism while thousands of people were evacuated from a major city in Pakistan's heartland as flood waters continued to rise.

The country's leader, under fire for failing to cancel an overseas trip while more than 14 million of his countrymen struggled to deal with the devastating waters, flew into Karachi and was due to return to the capital, Islamabad, later today.

There he will face renewed criticism over his failure seemingly to grasp the scale of the crisis – Pakistan's worst-ever natural disaster.

It is from this saturated heartland that Mr Zardari and the civilian authorities face the most intense criticism for failing to do more. Yesterday, thousands of people fled from the city of Muzaffargarh in Punjab province after officials issued flood warnings as the swollen Chenab river continued to rise.

"It's really bad, horrendous," Rashid Javed, a spokesman for the charity Plan International, whose partners are working to help people in the Muzaffargarh area, told The Independent. "In addition to all the water from the north-west, we have had three days of torrential rain. Most of the camps that have been set up for people have been moved to higher ground."

Reports said the usually busy city of 250,000 people, located in the breadbasket of the nation, was yesterday largely deserted – large numbers left after warnings were issued the previous evening.

A number of men stayed behind to guard homes and businesses. "There is no doubt that our city is almost empty now," Mohammed Saleem, a shop owner who sent his wife and children to Multan, told the Associated Press.

The city's hospital said it was suffering from staff shortages because so many doctors and other workers had decided to leave before floods struck, and workmen had placed sandbags around the facility in anticipation of damage. While it was still uncertain last night whether the rising waters would engulf the town, people said they were not taking any chances.

Almost two weeks after the worst floods in more than 80 years started to sweep through north-west Pakistan, there appears little let-up. While the waters have receded in some places, elsewhere they have continued to rise. Several UN bodies have admitted the scale of the disaster has made it difficult to respond adequately, not just for the government and the armed forces, but for aid groups as well.

"Our staff in Pakistan say the situation is among the most difficult they have faced. Thousands of villages and towns in low-lying areas have not seen flooding on this scale in generations," said a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

"[The government] puts the number of homes destroyed or damaged at more than 300,000, with more than 14,000 cattle having perished and 2.6 million acres of crop-land under water. So far, some 1,600 people have been killed, but many millions of Pakistanis and Afghan refugees have been affected."

Stephane Lobjois, of the charity Handicap International, said rescuers were travelling to disabled people's homes by foot to deliver emergency supplies. "Not even donkeys can reach – only men," he said. The UN has said the aid response needed to be scaled up "massively" and that it was working on a response plan that would require hundreds of millions of dollars in international assistance.

A spokeswoman for Mr Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) said one of his first tasks was to meet the chief ministers of the provinces to draw up a rehabilitation programme.

Yet in Karachi, Mr Zardari may have been distracted as the fallout from his Europe visit sparked a confrontation between the PPP and Geo News, the television news channel. Hundreds of PPP supporters gathered outside Geo's headquarters in the city, torching newspapers and tyres, chanting angry slogans and hurling stones and shoes.

The clash stemmed from the party's outrage over coverage of a protestor's attempt to strike Mr Zardari with his shoes at a rally in Birmingham. While the shoes missed, the mere attempt set off blanket coverage, with Geo and other channels drawing wry comparisons with former US President George Bush's narrow escape in Baghdad.

The PPP responded with fury and Geo's broadcasts have been shut off in Karachi.

Media view: 'Duration of the tour highlighted his insensitivity'

The insensitivity to the mounting suffering at home was thrown into sharper relief by the long duration of Mr Zardari's tour. Even as swelling rivers pushed the number of people affected by the calamity to several million, the president carried on with a visit that had no urgent purpose.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi in 'The News'

Surely the situation demanded Mr Zardari's presence in the country. True, there is little he could personally have done to improve things. But just as Bush and Obama learnt, it is the impression of being in charge that is important. And while it might have diverted important helicopter capacity, a visit to the flood-affected areas by the president might have cheered up displaced families, while encouraging those engaged in relief work.

Irfan Husain, 'Dawn'

To say Mr Zardari's visit to Britain was controversial would be putting it mildly. He was vilified by both the national and international media and to add insult to injury, the shoe-throwing incident in Birmingham served as the icing on the cake.

Editorial, 'Daily Times'

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003